When you think about pants-wettingly terrifying apocalyptic scenarios, the most horrifying might well be the worldwide plague. A deadly disease could spread around the planet at alarming speed, and kill most of the population before we even knew what was going on. Luckily, some of the best novels (and graphic novels) have dealt with the aftermath of a civilization-ending pandemic.
Here are 11 novels that can help you prepare for the biological apocalypse.
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
The Frankenstein author also may have invented the "last man in the world" trope with her 1826 novel, The Last Man. In the year 2092, a plague spreads through the world, bringing about political upheaval, looting and a false messiah. By the year 2100, only one man remains alive on the planet. In its time, the novel was reviled by critics as presenting too bleak of a world, a place where the romantic ideals of art, beauty and imagination have failed. But it's a theme that's been embraced by a ton of authors over a century later. The heavy language, and slow start to the story, may put off some readers — but this is the purest vision of a world that reduces the human population to one person.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson
If Shelley invented the "last man surviving a pandemic" scenario, then Matheson enriched it with the undead plague in I am Legend in 1954. A strange disease sweeps through the world, and changes all people except Robert Neville into vampires. Neville discovers traditional means of warding vampires work, but he researches the scientific underpinnings, as he tries to find a cure to the plague. Books and research materials from a library help him discover a bacterial infection causes the "vampire" transformation. Undead plague apocalypse pro-tip #1 – Stop by your local library to improve you undead lore and grab some science books on the way out. You might also want to pick up some survival manuals and field guides while you're at it.
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
While Yorrick Brown is apparently the last man surviving a global pandemic, the female population is left untouched, in this comic book series. Or at least, as untouched as anyone can be when half the world population is gone. This modern evolution of the "last man" trope depicts a world that's hovering on the brink of an apocalypse. And the series follows a few characters searching for a way to keep the human race alive, while everyone is trying to keep some fragments of human society together.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
A follow-up to the super-popular Zombie Survival Guide, this book is written as a collection of first person anecdotes from survivors of the Zombie War. A pandemic sweeps through the world, turning people into zombies. Big governments fail to contain the outbreak, because they're looking to hide the truth and/or isolate themselves from the reality. The result is a scathing commentary on government ineptitude, corporate corruption, and current world politics.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This book jumps off current debates over genetically modified crops and shady agribusiness, along with recent advances in understanding genetics. It's the 23rd century, and the world is regularly ravaged by bioengineered plagues from genetically modified crops and mutant pests. And a corrupt agribusiness is trying to gain access to Thailand's seed banks, as a new plague spreads through Bangkok. The title character is a genetically modified, humanoid slave straight out of Japan that can be carelessly tossed away, killed or imprisoned in a brothel as a sex toy.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The story of Oryx and Crake is told in a series of flashbacks. The present is a post-apocalyptic world, resulting from a pandemic released by a mad scientist, and it's populated by rogue mutants and a genetically engineered race meant to supplant humanity and create a Utopia. The flashbacks show a dystopian society that is dominated by marketing companies and corrupt bioengineering firms. Atwood piles on the social criticism, with the main characters starting as disaffected teenagers playing violent video games and watching torture porn online. Crake sets out to intentionally kill off humanity, with a pandemic. His friend, Snowman, is set up as the last man on Earth, along with the genetically modified replacements. Like most of the other books on this list, this novel reflects the excesses and neuroses of the time when it was written.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Creating super soldiers out of unwilling prisoners in secret government projects might have seemed like a great idea — but it turns out to have some pitfalls. In this case, an artificial virus sweeps through humanity and creates psychic vampires. At least the reader is given some science as to why the virus makes psychic vampires. Society inevitably crumbles and pockets of human communities fight to survive in this novel from 2010. A common feature in these new pandemic novels: lots of distrust of the government's motives and ability to deal with the situation. Of course this is nothing new — Stephen King's The Stand from 1978 takes place in a world devastated by a super flu created on a U.S. army base as a biological weapon.
Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire
The first five issues of this ongoing comic series have been collected into the trade paperback Sweet Tooth vol.1: Out of the Woods. Years ago, an artifiical plague known as the Affliction swept through the world, killed millions of people and, strangely enough, caused children to be born as a human/animal hybrids. The main character, Gus — later nicknamed Sweet Tooth — is a nine-year-old boy with antlers, deer ears and a deer nose. For a post-apocalyptic survival tale, Sweet Tooth has a sentimental streak, the sweet ingénue enters an unknown world under the protection of a rifle-toting man with a shadowy past and unknown intentions. The series stands out, because it follows survivors physically changed by a pandemic but no transformed into mindless monsters.
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Blindness is a rare story where the plague is not lethal, but the impact on the social order is just as devastating. The spread of an epidemic of "white" blindness spreads through and unnamed city and causes a breakdown of government and humanity. A lone woman, known as "the Doctor's Wife", keeps her sight and serves as the literal eye-witness to the tale. Those first infected are quarantined to an asylum, where they are brutalized by armed guards and each other in a chaotic, deteriorating microcosm reflecting the exterior world. In this harsh environment new bonds and new families are formed. The use of descriptors instead of proper names gives the book a universal feeling of not being tied to a specific place or people.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Young historian, Kivrin Engle, is sent back in time to study medieval history, but a sick lab technician sends her 30 years in the wrong direction and strands her during the bubonic plague. Kivrin arrives ill with an influenza epidemic that is sweeping through the future England and killing off the faculty and students at Oxford University. She recovers, only to experience the death of her new historical acquaintances from the bubonic plague. The parallel plague stories show that while medicine and technology has progressed, human nature has remained the same. The novel also emphasizes human vulnerability to illness and how death is a common element through all times. While this novel is a two-for-one tale of pandemic, the character achieve small meaningful victories through love, courage and faith and seems to lack the complete fatalism and cynicism of other pandemic novels.
The Plague by Albert Camus
Going to this existential classic, The Plague, for comfort seems counter-intuitive, but there's a lot to be gained from this book. While it's not science fiction or fantasy, it does paint a picture of hope and meaning in a time of pestilence. The French-Algerian town of Oran is quarantined, due to the outbreak of plague and at first suffers from the standard inept government, fear, and looting you see in all the other books. But then through the character Dr. Tarrou, the novel explores how human bonds give life meaning, and a disaster like a plague can awake people from the general malaise of life. The message is to fight ennui through solidarity and resistance.